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The taste of victory

California is home to true Italian salami, thanks to the sausage war.

February 19, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Molinari salami chubs are sold in Italian delicatessens and at the olive stand at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. In the early 1980s, Southern Californian supermarkets began to wake up and smell the salami. Mini-chubs of mold-ripened San Francisco salami, made by another Bay Area company, called Gallo, began appearing in Los Angeles in Ralph's and Food for Less.

Trader Joe's recently began dedicating ever-larger chunks of its tightly packed floor space to ever-larger displays of what is arguably the leading Bay Area brand, Columbus salami. These are all mold-ripened, and the Italian Dry (or Salami Secchi) are made to the 1970 standard. However, at first glance, they might disarm purists. They have been stripped of their moldy skins and vacuum-packed.

Columbus co-owner John Piccetti defends vacuum packing. Although the scent and appearance might be more pleasing from the traditional mold-coated chub, he says, salami left exposed to the air slowly keep losing moisture. Vacuum packing after air-drying can protect it from losing too much water and becoming overly greasy and hard.

The greatest pitfall for the consumer, however, is that this is also the way other producers package really awful salami imitations that miss the 1970 Italian salami standard by a very wide mile. For example, while Trader Joe's charges $3.99 for its 10-ounce, authentic, perfectly tasty Italian Columbus chubs, Whole Foods charges $9.99 for its 10-ounce Daniele Naturale" salami. The packaging on this says that it "authentic" and "natural," but not "Italian." The meat inside is finely minced, the appearance smeary, the flavor flat and sour. The buyer later explains that the chain has these made for it. It does not buy from traditional salami makers because it frowns upon the use of curing salts. To a lesser degree, the problem is simply with the packaging. The plastic might stop the salami from drying out, but it also arrests the heady aroma and makes the salami sweaty, detracting slightly from the texture. For purists, the only real salami is one sold with the mold on.

These chubs are usually displayed hung up, trussed in string and wrapped with a cigar-style paper ring, or in bright paper packaging. Crinkly, irregularly shaped links indicate that the salami were shaped in pork gut casings. This signals more complex flavor, says Piccetti. The fat in a natural casing will impart yet another layer of flavors. Double the skin to create a thicker casing, and you can slow fermentation and intensify the flavors yet more.

Normally, only delicatessens handle these, because the natural casings mean that they cannot be made to uniform sizes and will need to be weighed at checkout. Another typical casing for mold-ripened salami is cellulose-impregnated paper. These are excellent for curing meat, but unlike gut casing need peeling off in the kitchen.

A charcuterie bar

The last important step before eating is slicing. Piccetti recommends the Italian rule: Slice large chubs thinly and thin ones relatively thickly. Slices from large chubs should be cut thinly enough so that they roll up easily. Slices from smaller salami should be about the thickness of a silver dollar, just substantial enough to give pleasing resistance when you bite, but not put up a struggle. Cutting them this way ensures the right amount of meat to spice on the tongue, and it reveals less fat to air, where it will quickly oxidize and create rancid flavors.

Chef and Los Angeles restaurateur Suzanne Goin has made the slicing of salami a kind of happening. Three weeks ago, she and her partners opened A.O.C., a chic restaurant in mid-city Los Angeles. The place to sit is the charcuterie bar, where salami is only cut to order. Goin then serves it with bread and butter. There are few more indulgent rituals. First you generously slather a small piece -- bite-sized if possible, of fresh sourdough bread with sweet butter, then top it with a slice of salami. It's best eaten in small mouthfuls and swallowed whole, for you'll be coming back for more.

If this ritual sounds excessively rich for the blood of most Angelenos, Goin says that it is selling just fine. In taking it up, we have rediscovered one of the most profound pleasures of Piedmont. Italian cookery writer Anna del Conte describes the serving of bread and salami "one of the very few occasions on which there is butter on the table in Italy."

And it's true: a chub of salami, a bowl of olives, some cornichons if you're very lucky, a baguette, some good softened butter, and a bottle of wine, and you have a dead elegant first course. Add salad, nuts and fruit, and you have dinner.

Looking back at the San Franciscan fight to set the Italian salami standard, Piccetti says that the 1970 rule stands, "more or less. It has been somewhat liberalized." However, he is quick to add that this doesn't make our Californian Italian salami particularly Italian.

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